The rise of Amazon Prime in Canada’s most northern capital proves government programs designed to make food more affordable in isolated regions are simply “not working,” says Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett.
Bennett addressed the issue during a media availability on Tuesday, following reports that residents of Iqaluit are living in fear that they will lose access to free shipping through the online retail giant.
The lure of Amazon has proven powerful in Nunavut’s capital, the only place in the territory where the company still offers free shipping for Amazon Prime members.
Something as simple as a bottle of dish soap, $8 or $9 at the local supermarket, is a mere $2 or $3 on Amazon. Diapers can be twice as expensive in the store ($70) versus online ($35).
WATCH: Northern subsidy program for access to nutritious food ‘not working’: Bennett
Those disparities have persisted in spite of Ottawa’s $60-million-a-year Nutrition North program. Launched in 2011, the program is designed to subsidize northern retailers and help them offset shipping costs, in theory allowing them to keep prices low.
“We have been very clear that Nutrition North is not working for people,” Bennett acknowledged Tuesday.
“We are working now on a revision to Nutrition North … In the 2011 election, I was in Iqaluit where they said this wouldn’t work.”
Amazon a ‘life saver’
Iqaluit resident Leesee Papatsie runs a Facebook group called Feeding my Family, which is dedicated to helping northerners navigate high prices and find alternatives.
While Amazon isn’t the only online retailer people are using in Iqaluit, Papatsie said it’s certainly the dominant player.
“Knowing the shipping costs I won’t even bother trying other places,” she said, adding that whenever there’s free shipping to be had, word spreads through “instantaneous word of mouth.”
WATCH: #EndthePriceHike brings awareness of high cost of food in Nunavut
Bernice Clarke and her husband, Justin, agreed. Getting off a flight from their hometown of Iqaluit on Monday night, the couple called Amazon a “life saver.”
“We have subsidies that are supposed to be alleviating the costs,” Clarke said. “But the only people that are helping us is Amazon Prime. That’s what we can count on, and that’s really sad.”
Papatsie said she doesn’t understand why Ottawa doesn’t simply team up with retailers like Amazon to help extend free shipping to other communities.
“It’s working for a lot of different products. It’s working, so why isn’t the federal government looking into something like Amazon?”
Asked if the government would consider such a partnership, neither Health Canada nor Indigenous and Northern Affairs had offered comment by mid-day on Tuesday.
Amazon’s service isn’t perfect, of course. Northern families with bad or no credit can’t take advantage of an $80-a-year Amazon Prime membership, which requires a credit card.
And there are thousands more residents who don’t live in Iqaluit, and still face prohibitive shipping fees for anything they buy online. Some have resorted to asking friends and family in Iqaluit to order their products, then mail them on.
Doomed from the start?
Nutrition North has faced criticism almost since its inception, both from locals like Papatsie and from the federal auditor general.
In a 2014 report, auditor Michael Ferguson found that, among other problems, the government wasn’t effectively tracking whether retailers were passing on the savings they received through the subsidies to their customers.
The government responded with a series of public consultations on how to make Nutrition North more effective, carried out online and at town halls held throughout 2016. The result was a report made public in May.
Residents in a majority of isolated northern communities said that Ottawa should, at the very least, immediately re-examine how it subsidizes certain categories of necessities.
Flour is a prime example. It’s a key ingredient in traditional baking, and a subsidy on it would be far more useful than, say, trying to make kiwi fruit or sugared cereals more affordable.
Supplies used in hunting and fishing like ammunition, fishing nets, traps and snowmobile parts could also receive subsidy money to reduce their cost in local stores, allowing more people to hunt and fish off the land, the report noted.
Bennett echoed those sentiments on Tuesday.
“We want also to work with the communities around the kind of harvesting, country foods, the kinds of support for hunters and anglers, to be able to feed families in the traditional way,” she said.
“There is also going to be a big decision (about) whether this (program should be) for all Northerners … or is it a food security program for those who need it most?”
As Ottawa works on next steps, Papatsie said she isn’t overly optimistic.
“It’s really complicated to try and get any level of government to understand. Or to change their ways.”
— With files from David Akin